When you’re walking in the dark, it’s good to have a friend to keep you company. And sometimes your friend will say something you hadn’t thought of, and that’s helpful. And sometimes they will say something that you don’t quite understand, but it makes you curious, and aware that there’s something going on you hadn’t noticed. Keeping company like this, while walking in the dark, changes how you experience your life in a way that stays with you.
From a few moments after language blinked into existence, humans have tried to hold onto the words that accompany such mysterious moments of insight. We have etched them on bones, written them on papyrus scrolls, attached them to the refrigerator with a magnet. A bit more than a millennium ago people in China started to call these sayings koans. Koans are records of conversations, bits of verse, and stories. Soon there were great collections of koans and people discovered they were a transformative meditation practice. It appears that koans came out of a very old tradition of improvised spoken word poetry, art that crystallized out of a particular moment. Koans came to be a way of communicating understandings about the nature of reality and of having experiences of awakening.
As a teenager I’d write down poems or the words of a song and keep them with me where I could look at them. When I’d repeat the words to myself, I’d see something I hadn’t seen before, understand how to get through this dark patch or how to grow up. I still find those bits of paper in boxes and old wallets. I also discovered meditation around that time and it helped too. I could sit still and let the world have its way with me, put my doomed thoughts on hold and allow what was mysterious to reveal itself to me in the light through the window.
It was 20 years later when I first heard about koans. Initially I imagined them as an obscure spiritual puzzle for argumentative monks, which wasn’t very appealing. But then I met an actual koan. I had no expectations at first, but it was good company. I liked it. I wondered about it and turned it over and over in my meditation. I let myself be inside the world of the koan. Slowly, unexpectedly, it started to soften me up and I become fond of my actual life, even the difficult bits, the grumpy children, the impossible problems. The French poet Paul Eluard explained it: “Il y a un autre monde, mais il est dans celui-ci” (there is another world but it’s inside this one). Later on, my intense curiosity about the koans gave my practice a new kind of energy. And as I went along, I found there was something in me that understood what they were talking about. Ever since I’ve always had a koan with me, meditating, walking around, in my sleep.
A koan: Step by step in the dark, if my foot is not wet, I’ve found the stone.
A koan is made of evocative words and images. It’s not generalized spiritual advice, or even a good idea, it’s a response to a specific moment, and that moment is happening now. Each koan is different and takes me on its own journey. In the case of the koan above, you can enter through the stone, the dark, the water. And when you do this it’s possible to see how this moment is like so many others. “I’m in the dark again, looking for a stone. I’m walking through it, taking one step after another.” and I could also see that difficult situations are part of the condition of being a person. We find ourselves in the dark because it’s in our nature to be this way. And it’s also in our nature to find our way. It’s clear that the eternal and the ephemeral are connected, your individual life is part of something vast and shared.
Koans will show you something, and it will never be about how you or the world is wrong. Your criticisms and judgments, your ideas about how deeply flawed you or the rest of humanity are, your plans for escape or revenge or redemption, none of that matters at all to the koan. It will show you the vast web of everything, the net of jewels that you are a part of. Koans will teach you how to practice and they will be a gate into the never-boring world of everything you don’t already know.
Here’s how to do it: Step by step, in the dark, if my foot is not wet, I’ve found the stone.
1. Take a step:
Find a koan for yourself. You can use this one, about stepping in the dark, or if it holds no appeal, find another. I’ve included a short list below. Or perhaps you’ve already found a koan, or one is eyeing you from across the room. You can meditate with the koan, or take it for a walk. You can repeat the words to yourself, or not. Even one word is enough. What you remember consciously may not be up to you. Trusting the way you naturally work with the koan is the beginning of making a relationship with it.
2. Be in the dark:
We like to know things. It makes us feel safer, not vulnerable to criticism from ourselves or others. Koans don’t work like that. They reward the vulnerability of not knowing. The effort of working with the koan is in letting go of the ways you usually use your mind, the plans, the judgments, the image management. If you like, you can even let go of the koan. Once you’ve heard it you can’t lose it, it will stay with you, anchored below your attention. You don’t need to explain it to yourself or figure it out. What is required is to allow yourself to go to the edge of what you know and look beyond. This curiously delicious darkness stretches out in all directions. Transformation comes from this place.
3. Get wet:
Take the koan into your life. This means take it to the store, take it on a long commute, to work, take it to the woods, the circus, and holidays with your parents or your children. Repeat it. Allow it into your heart when you’re late for an appointment or in the midst of a hard conversation, when you’re sad or bored or disappointed in fame or fortune. Just recall the koan to mind and notice what happens. Really look. What you saw before won’t be what you see now. You may see the light in people’s faces that you had missed before. Something annoying may turn out to be funny instead.
4. Find a stone:
This koan, “Step by step in the dark…” points to the way that you have the capacity to find a moment of ease, a dry place to put your foot. Notice when that ease comes, maybe that’s the stone. The koan also provides you with places to step in the form of potent words and images. Let yourself rest in these. Use the word or image as a focus, lean into it. Explore what it’s like. Feel it in your body. Actually walk in the dark and notice how it is for you. Find out what kind of stone is your stone, and how it is for you to step there. Notice when you’re at peace.
5. Start again: When you lose your practice, when suffering appears again, impenetrable and literal, you can always start again. Find your koan. Shake it a bit and ask, what now? This is a practice that will be there when you need it.
You can do this anytime, in any condition. You can do this in meditation, sitting quietly, in a pool of sunlight. And better still, take it where you don’t think it can go. It’s there whenever you need insight or a new way of seeing your situation or a hand to hold in the dark. There won’t be an answer, not directly, but you will start to see something new, or more clearly. The world (the argument, the traffic) will be visible in a different way, perhaps brighter, or perhaps it will bring tears to your eyes, or make you laugh out loud.
There is a zen practice of working on koans individually with a teacher, as a curriculum of study, which is based on a traditional Japanese method. The technique I give here is also useful in that context. There are many ways to practice with koans, and you will discover your own. Fortunately koans are robust, durable, and impossible to break.
A very small selection of koans to choose from:
1. There is a true person of no rank, always coming and going through the portals of your face.
2. There is nothing I dislike.
3. The heart-mind turns in accord with the ten thousand things. The pivot on which it turns is very deep.
4. Put out the fire across the river.
5. Without judging good or bad, what is your original face before your parents were born?
6. Heart clouded, heart unclouded, standing or falling, it’s still the same body.
7. Who am I?
8. Question: Why did the first ancestor come from the west? Answer: The oak tree in the garden.
9. There is a solitary brightness without fixed shape or form. It knows how to listen, to understand, and to teach the dharma. This solitary brightness is you.
Published in Lion's Roar, August 2019
Article printed in Lion’s Roar Magazine August 2019
There are sayings, snippets of conversation, questions, parts of poems and stories that are called Zen koans. Koans serve as a way of opening your experience of life, they undermine the way you usually think about things, and reveal surprising or beautiful aspects of reality.
The Zen koan schools began a millennium ago and the koans are to be found in collections with titles like “The Blue Cliff Record” or “The Gateless Gate”. Koans are meant to change the way you understand things in a real and irreversible way, like seeing through a door that had previously been closed.
Koans traditionally are limited to those written down long ago, but in reality, there are infinite koans. A koan often presents a duality, an apparent choice to make or something to judge. Or sometimes it presents an impossible problem, a predicament, you might call it. What about your life questions, like the tough decision about what to do with work or relationship that you keep returning to? Probably not, since questions like that tend to go around and around on an endless wheel of predictable thinking.
A koan will allow you to approach those problems and decisions from the side, or from underneath, by taking away the thoughts that confine you. One woman working with a koan noticed that she had always thought of herself as a worrier. She could see that was just a part of her nature, the way the autumn leaves were red. And once she stopped worrying about that, everything else got easier, too. So even if you are the sort of person who does everything your own way, start by using the koans that are offered and take the ride.
There are many different ways of working with koans, but what I’m suggesting here is that for the time being you simply take a koan on as a companion, an object of attention, something to return to when your mind has been off somewhere making trouble for itself. So you can choose, or sometimes a koan will stick to you, like a burr in your sock, and it’s not even volitional. The koan will disrupt the endless circle of thoughts, of planning for disaster or complaining or blaming or defining, predicting and explaining. You can refer to it, like a compass or an amulet or a friend.
The first thing to do is to notice when you’re uncomfortable or suffering. You may do this first during meditation, because there you’ve assigned yourself the task of paying attention. Your mind will be chewing at a thought or an emotion like a dog with a bone - sadness or anger or boredom, with some sort of explanation, or some image. And you’ll notice it’s not much fun. You can bring the koan in here, try this one: The coin lost in the river is found in the river. Just say it to yourself, all of it, or part of it, the bit that sticks.
Your mind will make connections or shift itself around, sometimes your body will, too. Be curious about what happens, and remember that you can rely on the koan. You don’t have to worry it or get it right. Just come back to it. Make note of when something loosens for you, or the way the koan is a comfort. You’ll know it’s working because things will seem less difficult. Also notice if something becomes really intense, because sometimes the koan will bring some internal conflict into sharp focus. You’ll start to see the things you’ve been believing and the effect of those beliefs. Either way, something gets clearer, and you can trust the process. The koan also may bore you. That usually means there’s someplace it wants to take you where you don’t want to go.
So you can keep sitting quietly, paying attention every day, noticing simple things like your body and sensations, and bring the koan to mind. The coin lost in the river is found in the river.
And try one more thing this time. At a time when you’re not officially meditating, when you notice your mind has gone somewhere and you’re not enjoying it, say you’re stuck in traffic, or afraid, annoyed or in pain…bring the koan to mind here, too. The coin lost in the river is found in the river.
See what happens.